Christians will long remember Palm Sunday 2017 as the day that bombers struck two Egyptian churches, killing at least 45 people. On Holy Saturday, Coptic Pope Tawadros II described the victims as martyrs who are now serving as “ambassadors in heaven” for persecuted Christians. But the bombings in Tanta and Alexandria were not the only attacks on Christians on Palm Sunday. Some 3,000 miles away in India, Hindu fundamentalists disrupted church services in five separate states.
These intrusions did not generate anywhere near the same coverage. Understandably so: they claimed no lives. But they did leave local Christians badly shaken. The five incidents – in Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu – followed a pattern. Hindu activists interrupted Sunday prayers and accused churchgoers of converting Hindus to Christianity. In Jahanpur, Uttar Pradesh, a mob roughed up an Evangelical pastor before handing him over to police.
There are reports of officers accompanying the fundamentalists to churches. One Catholic activist suggests there is “direct collusion” between activists, police and local authorities in states ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP). He believes these states are engaged in an “aggressive competition” to prove that they are the most zealous defenders of Hindutva, the ideology of “Hinduness”. Western Christians might be tempted to dismiss these Palm Sunday incidents as the kind of low level harassment that, sadly, religious minorities suffer in much of the world. But local leaders say they indicate a wider decline in religious freedom in the world’s largest democ-
Locals report a decline in religious freedom in the world’s largest democracy racy. Last week Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi “to rein in these unruly forces and restore India’s image”.
Some doubt whether Modi is inclined to do so. The white-bearded leader came to power in 2014 with the support of Hindu nationalists. He is a member not only of the BJP, but also of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu paramilitary group. Last month he backed the appointment of Yogi Adityanath, a volatile Hindu priest, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. In 2005, Adityanath reportedly led a “purification drive” which involved the conversion of hundreds of Christians to Hinduism.
Modi is seeking to perform a perilous balancing act: promoting growth while satisfying the cultural demands of his hardline Hindu base. Christians fear that if the BJP fails to fulfil its economic promises then it may seek to stoke interreligious tensions to maintain its grip on power.
Pope Francis is expected to visit India later this year. There is no doubt that he will appeal for tolerance of the country’s roughly 28 million Christians. But it will be interesting to see whether he raises the highly sensitive issue of conversion. Five Indian states effectively forbid Hindus from joining other faiths. These anti-conversion laws are so vaguely crafted that they can be used to stymie even the most tactful missionary work. Will the Pope call for Indian states to respect freedom of conscience or will he tiptoe around the issue from the legitimate fear of making a bad situation worse?
Hitting persecutors where it hurts
In her Easter message before calling a general election, the Prime Minister said: “We should be confident about the role that Christianity has to play in the lives of people in our country, and we should treasure the strong tradition that we have in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech.” Catholics will be glad to hear this, and will also, perhaps, appreciate her recent comment on the “ridiculous” decision to drop the word “Easter” from an egg hunt organised by Cadbury and the National Trust.
But perhaps of greater importance is what Mrs May had to say about religious freedom: “We must be mindful of Christians and religious minorities around the world who do not enjoy these same freedoms, but who practise their religion in secret and often in fear. And we must do more to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to practise their beliefs openly and in peace and safety.”
These words are certainly welcome, but they must be followed up by deeds. And there is a way: Britain could easily disrupt cultural and sporting relations with countries that persecute Christians. Trade,
we know, is a matter of money, and financial sanctions could damage us. But sporting and cultural sanctions can work because they hurt, as the example of apartheid-era South Africa proves.
A good way to start would be to forbid British cricketers from playing against Pakistan as long as Asia Bibi languishes on death row for the supposed crime of blasphemy. Pakistan is cricket-mad. Such a sanction would hurt, and would prove that our Prime Minister is serious when she says she supports global religious freedom.
CATHOLIC HERALD, APRIL 21 2017 3